The Four Elements to Becoming a Better Writer

There's nothing that writers love more than reading about writing (although, reading about reading comes in at a close second). Everyone's looking for a universal secret that sets apart the best writers or makes the writing process easier. Unfortunately, that secret doesn't exist.

The only consistency I have found across all great writers is that they show up. They define themselves by an insatiable desire to write–it's a core part of their routine and they put in the work every single day. 

While you might not self-identify as a "writer," that's okay. Journaling for reflection, working on your communication skills, and piecing together a 300-page novel are each valid objectives. But if you want to improve your writing–the foundational skill to each of these–you have to consistently show up, work at it, and make it part of your routine.

Over the past year, quite a few people have reached out asking for details on my own writing process. While I consider my writing skills to be a work in progress, this is my attempt to detail what my current system looks like. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but my hope is to provide you with a few tactics that you might leverage on your own.

Takeaways:

  1. Reading, writing and learning fuel each other. Channel your intellectual curiosity and you'll never face a shortage of ideas.

  2. Timing is important but it's not everything. Determine what's sustainable for you and stick with that.

  3. Writing is about momentum and a relaxed state of concentration. Don't interrupt this unnecessarily.
     
  4. Editing demands grit. It's here where the great writers set themselves apart. 


How do you come up with ideas?

Reading, writing, and learning fuel each other. Anytime I've struggled to come up with new ideas, it's almost always because I'm not reading enough or challenging myself to learn anything new. If you channel your intellectual curiosity, this problem takes care of itself. 

Read, listen to podcasts, make sure you're learning something new in every environment you're in. This is how you begin building a network of mental models which allows you to uncover new ideas and connect concepts in interesting ways.

When you commit time to pursue knowledge and exercise your own curiosity–in whatever form that takes–you'll never face a shortage of new material and ideas to choose from. 

I keep a running list of all my ideas, potential topics, and relevant thoughts in Notes (iOS) and Evernote. This way I don't lose track of anything that comes to me throughout the day. 

When do you write?

Timing is important, but it's not everything. It can either be an excuse to avoid putting in the work, or it can be turned to your advantage. While many great writers have tended to write early in the morning, you shouldn't obsess over replicating their routines. Find what works and is sustainable, for you. The most important thing is getting started.

Once you're in the habit of writing, if you want to fine-tune your process, consider your internal clock. Writing is an intensive, creative process that demands significant focus. If at all possible, pick a time of the day when you're at your peak level of concentration. Otherwise, it will be tough to sustain.

I'm a morning person–my most productive hours are between 6:30 and 10:30 AM. Each morning I wake up at 6:00 AM and write for at least a couple hours before heading into work. I guard this time seven days a week, as it's the most important part of the day for me. Weekends are slightly different, with a few hours of writing in the morning, and a second shorter session at a coffee shop in the afternoon. 

This will inevitably change over time as your position in life changes. Five years ago, I was the exact opposite and only wrote at night. Allow yourself to adapt, but make sure you don't lose the habit.

What does your writing process look like?

Sometimes I begin writing an article because I have a general idea of what I want to say. Other times, I'm trying to figure something out for myself. Either way, for me, writing is about momentum.

When I sit down to work through a new idea, I'm not writing for structure or format. I'm not writing to assemble a cohesive argument. And I'm not writing from an outline. I'm writing to get every relevant thought I have on that topic down on paper. For a single article, this can take anywhere from an hour to a few days.

The motivation during this initial phase is to get to a place where I'm not thinking about the act of writing. If I start thinking too much about what I'm doing, I can't achieve a state of relaxed concentration where I am at my most creative and coming up with my best work.

As one achieves focus, the mind quiets. As the mind is kept in the present, it becomes calm. Focus means keeping the mind now and here. Relaxed concentration is the supreme art because no art can be achieved without it.
— W. Timothy Gallwey

Other than my initial approach, I've found a couple of tactics that help facilitate this momentum, flow, relaxed concentration–whatever you want to call it. 

The first is that I'll listen to the same song for hours on end to help induce a deeper state of creativity. I've found that listening to one song on repeat often helps jumpstart things and push me towards the proper state of mind. I'm not the first one to discover this, it seems quite popular among writers and software developers.

The second tactic I use is to help steal some sense of momentum when things have stalled. To overcome inevitable lulls, I'll double back and rewrite the previous sentence or two. It's a mental thing where I feel like I can carry that energy through better if I'm able to create some type of forward motion.

Think of it as riding your bike up a hill. If you mount your bike in the middle of a hill, it can be difficult to make your way to the top based on the immediate level of resistance. Whereas if you start at the bottom (less resistance) and build some momentum going into the climb, you'll be able to better carry that through to the top. It's amazing how often this gets me back on track heading into a new section. 

How do you edit/refine your articles?

This is where the attention to detail comes into play. My rough drafts are very rough drafts. As a result, I spend a significant amount of time editing, rewriting, and refining.

After I have all my thoughts down, I go back through the material to identify common themes and distill the most important ideas. Certain insights may (or may not) appear, and I'll draw from those as I begin to organize the article. 

I'm never finished writing at this point. Often, there's quite a bit of work to be done. After I've arranged the article and developed some sense of structure, I'll go back and immerse myself in certain sections so I'm able to simplify ideas. Again, if I get stuck I'll use the tactics mentioned above to capture the same sense of flow I had during the initial writing process. 

This part of the creative process often feels similar to a puzzle. You're piecing together fragments and determining how they best fit together. And it's in the process of uncovering and assembling those fragments that you find yourself and your best ideas in.

From the outside, writing appears romantic. You just pour your ideas onto a page then call it a day. But those who live it know the grit it entails. The editing process demands the greatest persistence of all. And it's never something you can rush through.

Grit entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress. The gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon, his or her advantage is stamina. Whereas disappointment or boredom signals to others that it is time to change trajectory and cut losses, the gritty individual stays the course.
— Angela Duckworth

No one is above this final piece of the writing process–not even the greats. Ernest Hemingway rewrote the ending of A Farewell to Arms 47 times. Harper Lee spent two years working with her editor, Tay Hohoff, reworking the entire plot and cast of characters in what would become To Kill A Mockingbird

It's foolish to expect perfection each time you sit down to write. If you get to the point where you've stared at what you've written for too long and begin to hate it, step away for a few days. Time and distance are often the true tests of quality.

But regardless of your objective, the most important part is sitting down to practice the craft.

Writing is not about some stroke of genius and it’s not pretty. It’s about grit, showing up, writing, editing, rewriting, and refining.

 

Your First Responsibility in Any Job

Many smart creatives have lofty ambitions — a desire to create something meaningful, make a difference, improve the world. But it’s easy to get caught up in these aspirations and overlook your most important responsibility.

Each of us has the capacity to directly impact (and improve) a handful of people’s lives on a daily basis through our work. This is our obligation to each other — no matter how high our position or perceived impact.

When you come into work each morning, your first job should be to improve the quality of life for your immediate team. It doesn’t matter if you’re an engineer, analyst, designer, manager, or intern. Everything starts with the people around you. Take your ego out of it. Only then will you be able you branch out and improve, as a group and individuals.

Building the morale of your team is what precedes creating anything of lasting value. If you don’t get it right at this immediate level, it’s impossible to sustain at higher levels of performance with multiple moving pieces. 

This can be better understood as a five-tier model, similar to a rather famous hierarchy of needs.

Levels:

  1. Improve the lives of those on your immediate team
  2. Elevate the quality of individual and group contributions
  3. Establish and grow the culture
  4. Advance the overall mission and purpose
  5. Contribute something meaningful to the world and improve people’s lives

The people around you come first. Before the customer. Before the experience. Before the achievements.

Improving the lives of those around you doesn’t mean making things easier, and it doesn’t mean people pleasing. What it does mean is engaging, challenging, collaborating, and empathizing. And it all must be authentic —everyone’s different, it takes time to build trust and develop your own cadence and rapport. 

Environments where people care and know how to push each other, produce better outcomes. This is where the seeds of cultured are sown.

While it’s an individual attitude at its core, you can also structure teams in a way that facilitate this type of growth and interaction. Small empowered teams — what we refer to as journey teams — encourage people to check their egos and focus on coming together. It’s the same mentality in startups — lean, resourceful teams who care about each other, their values, and their mission.

Those who are only in it for themselves will struggle to survive in this type of an environment. 

There’s less room to hide behind personal brand — or whatever garbage they disguise it as. While this might work in a more rigid, corporate hierarchy, true motivations become glaringly obvious on self-sufficient teams. Pretending to care about the people around you because you’re supposed to, is not the same as actually being invested. You can’t fake that. At least not for long without breeding resentment and disengagement.

Authenticity, purpose, and challenge are each important if you want to keep smart creatives engaged and contributing their best work. This is one of the most significant obstacles that companies face in today’s business world. That’s why so many people are on the two-year plan, bouncing from one opportunity to the next. It’s difficult to sustain a high level of engagement for years on end.

The best way to combat this is by building a community of people who not only challenge, but care deeply about each other. It’s a true competitive advantage that’s not easily replicated. It’s hard work, that’s why it’s so rare. But few things have a more powerful, direct contribution to your overall wellbeing than this type of work environment. 

If you want to make a difference, start by making a difference in the people’s lives immediately surrounding you, then build from there. This remains true regardless of what aspirations you hold.

Show compassion and interest towards the people you work with. Discover meaning in your work, together. Enjoy your time together, struggle together, and strive to improve each other’s lives.

If you want to achieve what you’ve set out to, you’re going to need people who care about and challenge each other. That’s what it takes to bring an idea to life and contribute something meaningful to the world. When you make this your first responsibility, everyone will come out better for it. 

Top 4 Books for Better Mental Models

In a world of specialization, mental models are the most powerful argument for adopting a more multidisciplinary approach. The concept behind mental models is that broad exposure to a range of subjects enables you to leverage the most useful knowledge from each, so you’re able to make better decisions.

When you position yourself at the intersection of multiple disciplines, you develop the ability to connect seemingly unrelated dots in a way that the vast majority are otherwise incapable of discovering. It’s here where true creativity and the most innovative solutions are found.

Charlie Munger coined the term “latticework” of mental models–which is exactly what you’re aiming for. The models you pick up should be intertwined with one another, as well as with your personal and vicarious experience. The more connections, the faster you’ll be able to navigate the latticework of your mind, and the stronger your cognitive ability.

You can begin building better models by going straight to the source. If you read and study those who have demonstrated mastery over their specific fields–regardless of industry–you can improve your decision-making ability considerably.

Over the past year, I’ve read (and reread) over 40 books in search for the best systems. These have served as the foundation for improving my own mental models. I’ve distilled what I’ve found to be the most important methods and strategies down to just four books. Each documents real models from some of the smartest, most imaginative minds in history. While these are in no way comprehensive, it is my hope that they will provide a starting place for you to build your own latticework, and that you might find them as enlightening and useful as I have.

1) Mastery — by Robert Greene
You would be hard-pressed to find a more profound, relevant book, no matter your position in life. If I had to recommend a single book of Greene’s to get you started, this would be it. He begins by defining mastery as the sensation we experience when we feel that we have a greater command of reality, other people, and ourselves. The book offers a deep dive into every element of mastery–including insight for those just starting out and searching for their life’s task. True to form, Greene also provides detailed accounts and models from some of the greatest masters in history–Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Paul Graham, and dozens more.

“The pain and boredom we experience in the initial stage of learning a skill toughens our minds, much like physical exercise. Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents–will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction?” –Robert Greene

2) Tools of Titans — by Tim Ferriss
A collection of interviews with hundreds of the most talented entrepreneurs and thought leaders consolidated into their most useful sound bites. It follows the same format as his popular podcast. Ferriss lays the framework for building better, more productive mental models. Rather than suggesting a checklist of X-Y-Z required to set yourself apart, he emphasizes strategies and tactics which can be applied more broadly. A few of my favorite sections feature Naval Ravikant (entrepreneur/investor), Josh Waitzkin (chess prodigy), and Alain de Botton (philosopher). There are sure to be a handful of ideas that will resonate with you and help improve your own mental models. It’s a book I revisit with regularity–especially when I’m in need of a new perspective.

“Most people think they can wait around for the big moments to turn it on. But if you don’t cultivate ‘turning it on’ as a way of life in the little moments–and there are hundreds of times more little moments than big–then there’s no chance in the big moments.” –Josh Waitzkin

3) Antifragile — by Nassim Taleb
Taleb introduces his concept of antifragility, which explains that certain things–including us–benefit from a degree of randomness, chaos, and disorder. While comfort, convenience, and predictability, breed the opposite–fragility. He presents this as part of what he calls ‘the central triad’ which ranges from fragile to robust to antifragile–the key to personal growth. As he explains antifragility, he discusses the value systems that hold us prisoner, ancestral vs. modern life, and Seneca’s version of Stoicism. It’s a dense read, but worth it for a glimpse into the originality of Taleb’s models.

“With randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to use them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.” –Nassim Taleb

4) The Daily Stoic — by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman
I’ve found Stoicism to be the most effective philosophy for modern life. If you’re unfamiliar with Stoicism, you’re probably operating under the misconception that it’s synonymous with a lack of emotion. In actuality, it’s a school of philosophy focused on cultivating an unwavering sense of focus, appreciation, and rationality. The Daily Stoic is a great introduction to some of the most memorable Stoic philosophers and their models for living a better life, including Epictetus, Seneca the Younger, and Marcus Aurelius. The book offers daily wisdom–366 short sections–focused on the most important Stoic themes. This is not a philosophy textbook filled with abstract concepts. It’s an accessible overview of Stoicism and its emphasis on the art of living.

“Take a good hard look at people’s ruling principle, especially of the wise, what they run away from and what they seek out.” –Marcus Aurelius

Life Is a Single Player Game, Measure Accordingly

Life Is a Single Player Game, Measure Accordingly

“I wish I only cared about the things that everyone else seems to.” I’ve had this conversation with my closest friends dozens of times. It was especially common in the less triumphant moments of our early 20s. But every now and then, when paths are at their most ambiguous, this thought resurfaces.

The Best Travel Hack: Find Your Why

The Best Travel Hack: Find Your Why

What's the first thing that most of us focus on when planning a trip? The destination. We search Instagram for inspiration, reference our friends and travel blogs for personal accounts, then fixate on a certain location. But in doing so we often overlook what should be the most important consideration...

How to Retain Everything You Read

How to Retain Everything You Read

Pace is not something I am particularly reasonable about when it comes to reading. Rather than savoring a book, I get too excited and tear through it. While there are worse habits than voracious reading, it became increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for me to recall any information prior to the most recent books I had read.

Walking and the Hidden Benefits of Voluntary Hardship

Walking and the Hidden Benefits of Voluntary Hardship

The answer to most of your problems? Walk more. The act of walking gets you out of your own head and forces you to use your body as it is intended. In the age of convenience, the benefits of walking are a reminder that the easiest way is rarely the most fulfilling...

Life's Biggest Question: 3 Things I Got Wrong

Life's Biggest Question: 3 Things I Got Wrong

"What do you want out of your life?" asked Randy, my former boss. The question caught me off guard. I was in my early 20s at the time. It was a question that always lingered in the back of my mind but I'd find ways to distract myself from considering it too closely. Despite its existential nature, I muddled my way through a response...